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6 Autism Myths Busted

6 Autism Myths Busted

One expert explains what you really need to know about this developmental disorder—and debunks common myths.

Affecting 1 in every 59 American children, autism is one of the most talked-about and controversial topics in modern healthcare. If you don’t know who or what to believe, you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s start with a definition: Autism spectrum disorder encompasses several related brain disorders (once separately known as autism, Asperger's and similar conditions) that affect behavior, communication and social interaction. People with this disorder fall along the autism spectrum—meaning that while the symptoms they experience are related, such as difficulty communicating and impairments in behavioral functions, they vary from person to person. Those diagnosed with autism can range from “high-functioning” individuals who lead normal lives to those who need lifelong care.

Those are the undisputed facts, but there are also many common—and untrue—theories surrounding autism. “There is misinformation regarding the [cause], the prognosis and the increased prevalence, as well as treatment,” says Sharecare expert Ronald Leaf, PhD, who has more than 30 years of experience researching and treating autism. He’s here to help separate myth from fact.

Myth: Vaccines given in early childhood cause autism.
Fact: The overwhelming scientific consensus is that there is no association between vaccines and autism. In fact, when kids are not vaccinated on the schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they’re at increased risk for several preventable diseases—including measles.

Myth: Autism doesn’t show up before age 2 or 3.
Fact: Signs of autism can show up when a child is 18 months old—or even sooner. “I have seen children as young as 6 months old who appear to have autism spectrum disorder,” says Dr. Leaf. “However, typically we wait until age 2 to provide a firm diagnosis.” If you have concerns about your baby or toddler, share them with your child’s pediatrician.

Myth: People with autism can’t express affection.
Fact: Many adults and kids with autism may not make eye contact or give hugs, but they do show affection in their own way. Treatment can help them learn ways to express their emotions. Dr. Leaf recommends applied behavior analysis (ABA), which uses teaching and behavioral support to help increase communication and improve social behaviors, as the most effective treatment for autism spectrum disorders.

Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting.
Fact: In the 1950s, University of Chicago professor Bruno Bettleheim promoted the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism: Cold, emotionally distant parenting inflicted emotional trauma on a child that led to autism. While a healthy and supportive environment is important for raising a child with autism, experts now believe the disorder is strictly biological. The way in which a child is raised does not increase risk of an autism spectrum disorder.

Myth: Autism can be outgrown.
Fact: It’s a lifelong brain disorder, not a phase. However, the right treatment can help mitigate some symptoms, especially in children. Studies have shown that individual and intense treatment personalized to meet the patient’s needs has the greatest effect on improving social abilities. For those who are high functioning, treatment can enable them to lead productive lives. And without treatment? “Children get worse over time,” says Dr. Leaf.

Myth: Only people with low intelligence have autism.
Fact: People with autism have a wide range of intelligence levels. However, Dr. Leaf says that children with untreated autism often do poorly on IQ tests. His research found that weekly behavioral treatment over several years dramatically increased autistic children’s IQ levels.

The bottom line? It’s important to have an informed discussion with your healthcare provider if you suspect your child may have symptoms, or if you have general questions about autism spectrum disorder. With so much misinformation out there, getting the facts is crucial.

Medically reviewed in June 2019.

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